Translating as “into the mouths of wolves”, In Bocca Al Lupo is ultimately the Italian version of “break a leg” – a somewhat violent wish to performers before they walk on stage. But the mouth of a wolf is not just where teeth tear apart flesh. It’s where young pups are gently held, and where nourishment enters the body.
This phrase illustrates the several leaps of faith Jemma Kahn had to take in order to create her latest Kamishibai play. In Bocca Al Lupo is Kahn’s third play using Kamishibai – a twelfth century Japanese form of storytelling where cardboard panels (in this case, four) are used to visually illustrate a story. Her previous two Kamishibai plays, The Epicene Butcher (which toured internationally and was performed over 400 times) and We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants, were both highly lauded by critics and audiences alike.
While Kamishibai may be the device that Kahn uses to portray her tales, it is not the only thing that sets her apart as a master storyteller.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics by using lacquer and gold dust to repair the cracks, emphasising and assigning value to the site of repair. In Bocca Al Lupo has a similar effect. Kahn, her co-writer Tertius Kapp, and director Jane Taylor, expertly curate her story by selecting the cracks as the focal points which form the narrative. The play follows Kahn on her journey to Japan and then Ireland, and Kahn regales her audience with all of the things that we fail to mention when we are asked about our travels to another country.
One’s travels can be rife with anxiety, loneliness, culture shock and the depression that inevitably comes with isolation. The story of these travels is interjected with elements from her past and insights into the narrative. It is the story of grandmothers who pass down characteristics of feistiness, redheads who don’t want to wear mustard tights, and the saccharine cheerfulness required of an English teacher.
Kahn includes several highly familiar, ubiquitous instances of miscommunication in her retelling, such as Skype conversations with parents (both faces only partly visible in the frame). You get the feeling that she’s happy to see them and engage in an intimate communication, while still skillfully answering questions without revealing what’s truly going on in her life.
The tale uncovers how isolation left her vulnerable to so many things, such as being persuaded by a malevolent lover to sink into a life lacking in ambition and toothpaste. In the midst of misery, finding even an inkling of love has the power to control you because you’re so scared of losing it.
Kahn has the charisma of an old Hollywood starlet, and to be a member of her audience is to be in a state of enchantment for a full 80 minutes. Her gift is in her ability to be accessible: you feel that you’re in the company of a friend entertaining you with stories of her travels, coating them in humour to mask the taste of desperation. Part of Kahn’s magnetism lies in her vulnerability, and her confessions of failures.
Not only has Kahn co-written the play, but she has also illustrated each panel herself. In We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants, each story was written by an individual writer and paired with an illustrator. One would be forgiven for thinking that the same narrative device has been used in In Bocca Al Lupo, as each vignette is so accurately illustrated. But this is where Kahn’s training in fine art comes through as the illustrations are as diverse as the elements of the narrative.
Emerald panels representing Ireland are reminiscent of Gerhard Richter paintings. Frenetic, luminous scenes of Tokyo bombard the senses. Four sky blue panels are interrupted by one solitary skydiver, parachute already activated.
At times, the illustrations merely act as a support when simple yet potent statements are left out in the open. On finding herself compulsively squeezing her forearm, a plausible reaction of anxiety and self-harm to a certain situation, she merely states: “I squeezed until the skin split, and it bled, and it felt… lovely.”
In another scene, white panels with diluted brown drips of paint represent tears, sweat, humidity, misery. And here, they stand in for a script.
The lighting and sound, designed by Themba Stewart and Charl Johan Lingenfelder respectively, are used brilliantly to convey emotion, exaggerate atmosphere and transmit the voices of absent characters.
In the beginning of the play, Khan informs us that, as the storyteller, she has the power to begin and end the story at any point that she wishes. In Bocca Al Lupo consists of “A moment picked from a life” as Kahn explains of the story she tells.
What we remember, how we remember it, the little things that turn out to be notable, and how we choose to reconstruct our memories makes us all storytellers in our own lives. It is in the retelling that we can – hopefully – understand the difficult times. Ultimately every experience requires a leap of faith, to stare into the mouths of wolves.
In Bocca Al Lupo is deservedly sold out for the rest of its run at The Alexander Upstairs Theatre, but it returns in May. Be sure to book in advance for this exceptional show.
In Bocca Al Lupo is on at Alexander Upstairs from 30 January to 11 February 2017.